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Podcast Episode 039: Listen like an anthropologist

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With a doctorate in sociocultural and medical anthropology, and a degree in visual design, Michelle Barry has spent the past 20 years pioneering new ways to engage people by understanding the nuances of human behavior, emotions and how to effectively translate culture.

Michelle explains the importance of context for listening, creating the right environment and making the speaker feel comfortable. She begins by drawing the connection between listening and food, why it helps establish contextual cues that direct both the speaker and listener, without them knowing.

Michelle talks about the importance of listening in business environments, where it can combat an otherwise exclusive focus on decision-making. The best results often come from the ability to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, leaving a pause longer than normal and asking the unspoken questions. Similarly, Michelle emphasises that turning off recorders and cameras – giving a speaker the freedom to retract and retry what they have to say – is crucial.

A lesson learned the hard way, Michelle tells the story of a potential client that she misunderstood by not listening deeply, instead being too caught up in the possible outcome of the work.

Tune in to Learn

    • Why pizzas are round rather than square
    • That if you can’t relate to a person, there’s a good chance you can’t listen to them
    • The importance of context and culture in listening
    • The four level listening pathway


Episode 39: Deep Listening with Michelle Barry

Oscar Trimboli:          

Hi. I’m Oscar Trimboli, and this is the Deep Listening Podcast Series, designed to move you from an unconscious listener, to a deep and productive listener.

Did you know you spend 55% of your day listening, yet, only 2% of us have had any listening training whatsoever? Frustration, misunderstanding, wasted time and opportunity, along with creating poor relationships, are just some of the costs of not listening. Each episode of this series is designed to provide you with practical, actionable, and impactful tips to move you through the five levels of listening. So I invite you to visit to learn about the five levels of listening, and how others are making an impact beyond words.

Michelle Barry:

I think that unless there is an opening for real listening, then also beyond listening but following through, on what those learnings are, those brands will, sadly, they’ll just die off.

So the listening between the actual starting intentions of the founder, and what people today are wanting to hear, were completely aligned, but, what the company thought the listening was from what they think is mainstream, shut them down and kind of slowed down their progress in being able to be a relatable company. We see that a lot.

As far as listening goes in food, I think its biggest value is really healthiness orchestrator or create a context for listening, just as much as we would for playing, or celebrating, singing, dancing, chanting.

Oscar Trimboli:

In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, we hear from Michelle Barry, a sociocultural, and medical anthropologist. Michelle explains the connection between two of my favorite topics, food, and listening. How do different shaped foods create different listening environments? And why are pizzas round, rather than square? Michelle explains how anthropologists listen differently, and how they listen not only with their ears, or their eyes, but with their whole being. Listen out how Michelle explains how they listen for context, as well as what’s unsaid. Then we travel all the way to Europe and listen to how Michelle spends some time with a customer in Europe that she absolutely desperately wanted, and then discovered something really powerful about her own listening. Let’s hear from Michelle.

I’ve been told there’s a reason pizza’s round rather than square, and it’s cultural. In your work as an anthropologist, what role does food play in helping people, communities, and families listen to each other?

Michelle Barry:

I think that what food can do, and does, just by proxy of what it is, is it helps us create a context. It helps us establish whether we are, celebrating a birthday party, whether we are going to a game, whether it’s a formal or an informal event, whether it’s intimate, or very loose, and more extroverted … so there’s a lot of different contextual cues that food helps us establish. So if you were in the moment of feeling like you needed to have, or wanted to have a really meaningful conversation, you would most likely choose a certain environment, and certain types of food that would be conducive to that type of conversation. You mentioned this about pizza, and the shape, everything that we look at in food, also is rich with symbolism. So roundness creates a quieter, calmer, more open environment. It’s a safer environment, it’s a more female archetype.

There’s different ways you can look at how food starts to establish that, whether it’s symbolic … and these are often things we definitely don’t sit around thinking about everyday, these are really nuanced, symbolic conversations about the importance of shape, and tone, and colour, aromas, all these things signal something, but as far as listening goes, and food, I think it’s biggest value is really helping us orchestrate or create a context for listening, just as much as we would for playing, or celebrating, singing, dancing, chanting, each one of those things would probably bring a different set of food choices with them.

Oscar Trimboli:                

What do you think your anthropology trying brings to you in terms of insight that doesn’t exist in corporations today, and is reductive for?

Michelle Barry:

I think that, that question might have been   answered differently ten years ago even. When I first started as an anthropologist in the business world, there really weren’t any of us, people were completely confused “what do you mean, anthropology and business?” That just didn’t make any sense. I actually think that there’s more listening, and better listening today, than there was fifteen years ago.

I think what I see a lot happening in companies is that, companies are very pragmatic for the most part. They’re very focused on the how, and the what. How they do things, what they’re creating, what it tastes like, what it looks like, what it costs, where to sell it … it’s a lot of very tactical and more pragmatic decision making that they’re trying to elicit from a conversation. When you start getting into the brand side of things, people are less concerned, or interested anyway, in hearing about the how and the what, more so today, mostly because we have so many choices.

If you go stand at any grocery shelf, or go online, there are hundreds, if not thousands of choices in any given category, whether that’s pickles, or yogurt. So I think that when it comes to branding, it’s becoming more of a point of differentiation, and the listening is not so much about the how, or the what, because those are things that many companies can mimic, or claim, it’s more about the why. But it’s also something that consumers are less likely, or people are less likely to talk about sitting around a group of strangers in a focused group facility, with a two way mirror and people spying. It’s an intimate conversation. So, I think where anthropology is helpful, is we create the different context.

I don’t interview people in the artificial environments that provoke, or promote, or enable conversations like that, instead we talk with people in their native environments. In their homes, we have them have their own party, just a bunch of women sitting around drinking wine, and people who know each other and understand each other’s worlds already, to some extent, but also not having a performative element, as to more intimate conversations about your why, because why inevitably goes at a more personal level, and I think that’s also a bit why it becomes a bit uncomfortable at times for companies is, you have a lot of people, usually, especially the larger the company, and they all have their own personal why’s as to how they got there, but trying to find a common thread, or reason, or passion, or love between those people, isn’t something you just casually sit around typically and talk about, it doesn’t rise to the topic that quickly. So it requires a different style of communication and listening I think.

Oscar Trimboli:                  

What are you listening for, and what’s a story that brings that to life for those listening right now?

Michelle Barry:                                                      

There’s a very large company that has been around for, I think at least thirty years, they have a beautiful brand, and beautiful packaging, and they say a lot of the right things, but they had a sense that there was something deeper going on that had been lost from the time that the company had its founder position, and to where they are today, and they had been purchased by a much larger corporate company as well, so they were really trying to figure out where their brand sits today, after thirty years, and they really hadn’t done any specific research around it.

So I got together with the consumers, people, we sat around and drank and talked about their world, and their preferences, things that are important to them, and we don’t talk about that company, we don’t talk about that package, or the thing inside the package right out of the gate, we’re talking about what matters to them these days, and they started talking about a number of things, about how worried they are that their children aren’t going to have an environment when they get older, they’re worried about spirituality, and what to teach them, and what they don’t want them to be taught. We talked about their own fears of controlling ingredients, and what’s going inside of their homes, and where things might not be what they thought they were.

So a lot of their deeper roots of fears and desires, the kinds of things that wake you up at two in the morning, are the kinds of things we start talking about, and then we pair that up with what the company is trying to say, and usually the company will give me some background, or interview or listen to their leadership, and sometimes their founder, and the company created a very corporate structure around the brand. Didn’t want to say too much, didn’t want to go too bold, didn’t want to go too intimate, it’s was playing it down the middle for what they call “mainstream”, I’ll put in quotes, people.

When I read the narrative from the founder, which was loaded with idealism, and kindness, and a true mission around the product, and what that meant to the environment, and what that meant to future generations, he went out, he really went out on a deep whim, which is why I think he attracted so much momentum thirty years ago, but had gotten down in the sake of safety, which watered the larger brand down to be somewhat irrelevant anymore. So the listening between the actual starting intentions of the founder, and what people today are wanting to hear, were completely aligned, but what the company thought the listening was from what they think is mainstream, shut them down and slow down their progress in being able to be a relatable company, and we see that a lot.


Oscar Trimboli:                  

What do you think the cost would have been for them of not listening in this way, to the people who engage with their product?

Michelle Barry:                   

Well, I think they’d just become a legacy brand that goes out to pasture, and a rather slow death. If you look at the brands today that are coming out, the new ones, they are so marked with intention, and commitment, and courage, and responsibility, and compassion, you can’t buy that, and it’s difficult to fabricate it. I think that unless there is an opening for real listening, but then also be on the listening, but following through on what those learnings are, those brands will sadly just die off.


I think many people who run companies struggle with constant chatter that we carry in our brains, and we don’t allow ourselves the time to actually practice deep listening. What Oscar does, is he elegantly outlines strategies to manage that struggle between feeling like we should be leading, when we’d actually probably achieve more from listening. It’s relevant, it’s practical, insightful, and I think most of all, it makes you reconsider what listening actually is.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

In your work, you’re responsible for training anthropologists in how to listen in this context. Take us through how you train people to listen through the lens of anthropology during this research?

Michelle Barry:                   

I think the first piece of it is them listening with each other, it starts in close. Thinking about all the different signs and signals of listening, I think that as long as we’re busy thinking about what we’re trying to understand, or say, or prove, or make someone feel comfortable in an interview scenario, a lot of that gets in the way of us being able to really listen with our ears, but there’s also the training of everything else, and I think for anthropologists, we’re a bit more inclined not to listen as much with our ears, frankly.

We’re more inclined to be listening with our eyes, picking up different cues, and symbols, and narratives that are happening, and again a lot of it for us is context, so what’s in that environment, that person, and I don’t necessarily mean their house, or their city, or their town, rather, what are they wearing? What are they carrying? How are they making eye contact, are they not? We listen for the cadence, we listen for what’s unsaid.

I always say a good interview for us is typically, we ask a simple question, much like yourself, and you see one line on a transcript of our question, then you might see two or three pages of that person expressing themselves with very little interruption. Letting them go where they need to go. Some research that anthropologists do can be hyper structured, where you have what’s called a discussion guide, you may have a survey even, that, assume something before you go in, and our rule of thumb and my rule of thumb is always the twist them, you know nothing. I imagine that a lot of people who listen for a living, try to do that. But we’re trying to understand their world, and make ourselves accessible, and I suppose vulnerable in many ways, to where they’re at.

There’s some obvious things about making somebody feel comfortable, gaining that trust, and listening that displaces things that happened, like uncommitted opinions, or certain expectations, or fears, or assumptions, we’re purposefully trying not to put those into that space, to give them the opportunity or the courage to let themselves be heard. There’s different ways we do that, some of its readings, role-playing with each other, but we practice a lot, even just on our own on a day-to-day basis between each other.

Oscar Trimboli:                                                      

Michelle, if we boil down the difference between a good anthropologist and a great anthropologist through the lens of listening, what distinguishes good, and great?

Michelle Barry:                   

I think great anthropologists listen with their entire being. Anthropologists are different today, I think in the past it was about going to relatively undiscovered lands, and other people, looking at their traditions … and it’s easier to do that in some senses in that, when you’re going somewhere else everything seems interesting, and different, and unfamiliar, and curious, and it’s naturally setting the tone for being a good anthropologist, and being present, and really gathering all of this information and doing this deep listening.

Great anthropologists are the ones who have the ability to listen to their own culture, and are doing it not just in narrative form, but are really looking at the symbolic cues, and increasingly I am very much into the idea of energetic listening. When you can’t see somebody, when you have to put yourself out there in a different way and be more receptive to feeling, or intuiting I suppose, what’s required for that listening to be effective, and those are things that are absolutely not drained in institution, but I think that it’s becoming more accepted, I think it’s a little bit of both things, of hyper self reflexivity and trying to understand your own conditions, but also like a hyper-presence of moving beyond the physical and just what’s right in front of you, and see if you can take that listening in just a bit more deeply.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

What advice do you give the people you train to listen to what’s unsaid, and how do you pause, and help groups, and interview to explore what’s unsaid?

Michelle Barry:

I think with anthropologists, we’re also supposed to be interviewers. So the temptation is that when there’s a lull in the conversation, that we fill it with the next question, and I think that having the ability to have a possibly very uncomfortably pregnant, that’s when interesting things happen. A lot of our interviews are conducted on tape, and as soon as we turn the recording off, that’s when the actual real conversations begin, that’s when they feel they’re being heard most I think, and willing to be more revealing, so I think a lot of what I say to them is, be uncomfortable, be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Let that quiet get a little, just to the edge of uncomfortable, and turn your recorders off, because that’s the safety or the threat of not being able to speak, that it’s somehow recorded and irrevocable and it is scary, and I think as an anthropologist when you’re interviewing and documenting, specifically with the intention of telling the stories, it chokes people up, there’s too much fear in the once I’ve said it I can’t reel it back in.

We do about half of our interviews with the camera off, and the second half of the interview is usually what we’re more inclined to use, because the trust has been established, the comfort’s been established, and the context has been established.

Oscar Trimboli:

Can you talk us through a situation where you’ve become conscious during the process of selling your services to a client that you weren’t listening?

Michelle Barry:                   

Oh yes, many times, especially earlier on when I think I was more attached to the outcome of closing the project, because I wanted to work on it so badly, or closing the project because my boss said that we needed X amount of revenues to hit payroll on Friday, I think honestly until I started running my own business, that was more common than not. I had an idea of what I thought our offerings were, of how unique the outcome would be, and was very committed to being able to express that as best as I could, because I think, as again, being in anthropology, in the business world was totally confusing to people. I find myself in that situation a lot, even on other fronts these days, but any time you have to explain a new way of doing, and a new output, I think you get much more engaged in this idea of making sure that they understand, and you’re just talking. So, you do miss out on the listening.

I think also often times, they don’t know what to ask, and so you have to really lean into whether there are dangling questions out there, that aren’t being spoken. So, I’ve definitely stubbed my toe on that more than not over the years.

Oscar Trimboli:

Those earlier days, take me into one of those sour situations where you weren’t listening.

Michelle Barry:

I worked very hard to get an international project, and I was flying to Europe, and I had gotten us to the top two agencies, and we were competing with a very large agency that had dozens of people, and they were very slick, and had gorgeous story boards, and all sorts of things. They flew five or six people out to their first meeting, and I was the second presenter, and I came with one of the designers on the team who met me there, from … he lives in Europe, and he flew over and met me, and we took the train out, just the two of us, and we had some level of a presentation, and that was the expectation. But I went in and I was really determined to win this dang thing because it costed me a fortune out of pocket to get there, I loved the idea of working with another culture and really trying to understand how to communicate a different way of eating and thinking in the rituals and relationships associated with that over here in America. I really, really wanted to birth that idea over here.

I was very committed to the outcome, and I was also very committed I think to assuming that they didn’t understand certain things about what was going on with the American behavior, how we eat. So I went over, and I did the pitch, and we had a very engaging conversation. I came home, I won the project, it was a big one, and we got started, and about midway in I realized what they really wanted was a team that had about fifteen people that could crank out at a very high velocity, a lot of more turn key mechanical production. Which is exactly what we don’t do, and as I looked back, all the signs were there, it was even in writing, and I am sure they said it more than once, but I wanted to do the other part so badly that I missed that, and so it really ended up as a disaster.

We did the first part of the project, they canceled the rest, I’d already ramped my team up so I did the consequences of now being overbuilt as a team and having to try and figure out how to save those relationships, and obviously a huge financial hit, and I think that was a really good lesson for me, and that wasn’t that long ago. Again, not being so dang committed to the outcome that as a professional listening, I didn’t see something that was actually quite costly, and at first I thought it was a cultural thing, I thought maybe I just didn’t understand, and we had language barriers … but it wasn’t. It was me.

Oscar Trimboli:

I’m curious, what we haven’t chatted about, Michelle, that you think would help the audience draw a connection between the domain of listening as an anthropologist, and helping them listen in their day-to-day lives.

Michelle Barry:                   

I mean we actually have a listening pathway that’s about fulfilling intentions, because the people that we talk with and work with have a very intentional pursuit of trying to get something out to the market place and they believe strongly that people need this thing, so we have layers of listening that are related to building a foundation for relatedness and alignment, just that if you can’t relate to the person, there’s a very high chance that you can’t hear them, and so that’s always our base, and then from there we start moving into listening for possibilities, then we’re listening for feasible or work abilities, and how do they integrate some of those things into the world? Then the last listening is for how that’s going to be accomplished.

So, we have a set base of how we latter listening, and that’s how we manage our projects. Those are some of the, stage gates, I’ll call them, for what we think might be a successful outcome, but most of that is grounded in listening.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

As you summarize that listening pathway for people in large organizations, or just in any organization, what level in the pathway do you think they skip, or miss, or don’t do well?

Michelle Barry:                   

The first one, the relativeness, and the alignment. We come into a lot of companies that think they’re on the same page, and what’s happened is there’s been a lot of exchanges in emails and a few meetings, but when you really sit down with the team, and you start to listen to what they all think we’re there to do, often times you’ll come away with just as many people in the room, there’ll be just that many different stories. So, helping them learn how to listen to each other, and then helping wade together the various threads or patterns to create that foundation we think is absolutely the most necessary, so we may spend not just hours, but months at times, really making sure that everyone understands what they’re trying to do, that they are aligned before we get going.

We’ve seen many failed experiences of not having that, and just having these little cracks in that foundation, and they start immediately jumping into possibilities and tactics, and hoping to see something happen, but when you’ve got a fragmented company culture that’s not aligned, that really haven’t communicated effectively, and haven’t really set their expectations out there and heard one another, fully, that is almost always a recipe for disaster on our end, at least that’s what we’ve seen over the years.

So, the listening pathway for us, like I said, it’s all about helping people fulfil their intentions, and that can be at an individual level inside of the company, or it could be as a group, and what they’re committed to doing, and what their visions and missions are as well. So the first step for us is having a conversation, which is probably the most intense time of listening in building a foundation of relatedness and alignment. That core piece is absolutely critical to any of the other steps being successful. You can imagine it like architecture, and that literally is the initial core, it’s the base that needs to hold everything else that you build on top of it. So that’s where we’re really looking for, not just declaring what the visions are, but it’s also starting to understand how, and what, and why, that’s the step one, is the conversation for foundation relatedness and alignment.

The second pillar on top of that is the conversation around possibilities. Now that you understand what it is everybody wants to do, is it still possible? Or is it a different possibility? Often times we’ll see that it shifts some, sometimes a lot, once we get that base foundation set, because it starts to get a little bit more tactical, I think that first layer is a little more strategic, and step two is a bit more, heading into tactics. Now that we know what it is, what could we do? This is more the “what” layer, whereas I think layer one is the “why”.

The third step is around, is it feasible. Can we work this out, is it doable? If so, how do we start to put that into action. So the feasibility is again right on top of the possibilities, and sometimes feasibility rules out a number of possibilities, but it also helps create some focus as to what you can do, and then you may need to rejigger your conversation a little bit, you may need to listen for some different things around some new possibilities because feasibility shows you really can’t do it, or it shows you can do some more. So, that’s the third layer.

The fourth step, is our conversation for accomplishment, and that accomplishment is very much about accountability, about completions, understanding what to do when there’s a breakdown, how to go back in and rework some things if necessary, so it’s extremely tactical, and then by that point we’re hoping that we’ve established a really firm base of listening, so people can hear each other throughout the process.

Oscar Trimboli:

I wonder if you’ve ever been part of a market research group. Have you been in one of those glass enclosed rooms where people are looking in at you, or worse still, they’re videoing you, and it’s a sterile meeting room, you’ve got some leftover chips, some soft drinks, and if you’re lucky, maybe some alcohol. But what I think Michelle did so well is explain how a listening environment can create a completely different context, level of openness, and connectedness for your customers. As anthropologists, they always study people in the landscape where they live, and Michelle always interviews their customers in environments that are the home, with their friends, and with maybe a glass of wine.

Every day organizations are listening to customers, whether it’s their complaint system, or through the telephone contact center, or the website, Michelle takes listening to a completely different level, a much deeper level. I think Michelle is a really good example of what it takes to be trained as an anthropologist, you listen much more deeply. You listen at the layer of context, you listen at the layer of unsaid, and you listen at the layer of meaning.

I love Michelle’s four level listening pathway around relatedness, possibility, feasibility, and accomplishment. Someone who spends their time working in large national, and multi-national, and global systems, it’s obvious to me that quite often they don’t take the time to listen to themselves, to listen to each other, before they set off and try to listen to the customers. I think Michelle has created an amazing gift, four layer listening pathway, and I hope some organizations get to listen to what Michelle has to say. Thanks for listening.


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